$7 billion didn’t help worst schools

Pouring $7 billion into America’s worst schools has produced few “turnarounds,” reports Caitlin Emma in Politico.  Nationwide, “about two thirds of (School Improvement Grant) SIG schools nationwide made modest or no gains — not much different from similarly bad schools that got no money at all,” she writes. “About a third of the schools actually got worse.”

In Miami, a high school in Little Haiti has moved from an “F” rating to a “B,” with help from SIG money. Achievement remains low, but not as low as it used to be.

Security is a concern at Christian Fenger High School in Chicago. Credit: Peter Hoffman, Education Week

Security is a concern at Christian Fenger High School in Chicago. Credit: Peter Hoffman, Education Week

At a low-performing school in Chicago, nothing changed. Fewer than 10 percent of juniors are proficient in reading, math and science, the same level as before.

Miami Superintendent Alberto Carvalho lined up “the support of teachers, unions and parents,” before SIG money arrived, writes Emma. With union buy-in, he was able to move strong teachers to low-performing schools, transferring weaker teachers to other placements.

“In Chicago, where teachers fought the program and officials changed almost yearly, schools churned through millions of dollars but didn’t budge the needle, reports Emma.

In 1989, 16 high-poverty, low- scoring elementary schools in Austin, Texas, were awarded $300,000 a year for five years, above normal school spending, to settle a desegregation suit. After five years, little had changed at 14 of the 16 schools, I wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle column. Two schools improved dramatically in achievement and attendance.

Only two of the 16 schools had plans for raising achievement before they got the money, researchers Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy wrote in an analysis of the “natural experiment.”

In the 14 schools that didn’t improve, the money was used to lower class sizes, but teaching and curriculum stayed the same — and so did results. In the two schools that improved, principals lowered class size, but that was just the start of many changes.

Here’s the Education Department’s new SIG report.

Why turnarounds don’t work

The Obama administration spent $3.5 billion on School Improvement Grants to “turn around” very low-performing schools, reports the Washington Post. However, most states lacked the staff, technology and expertise to improve failing schools, according to a U.S. Education Department research brief.

In Ed Week, Peter Greene, a high school teacher and Curmudgucation blogger, speculates on why turnarounds have done so poorly. Some states cheated by using SIG money to lower state funding, he writes. Others find the federal intervention models don’t fit the problems.

Feds: You can use this big tarpaulin or we can bulldoze your house.

You: But I have a hole in my dining room floor. I need some lumber to patch that up.

Feds: This tarpaulin is excellent for covering leaks in the roof, which is one of the most common problems we have found.

You: I don’t have a leaky roof. I have a hole in my floor.

Feds: Well, we can always bulldoze the place.

The turnaround premise is flawed, argues Greene.

The whole turnaround model seems to be, at heart, the story of a wise man who descends on a sad school, stands on a podium and points, “That way, you fools!” The assembled locals smack themselves on the forehead and say, “Silly us. Thanks for straightening us out,” and then march cheerfully into a bright new day.

It’s harder than that, he concludes. “Drive-by do-gooders for hire” haven’t proven they can transform troubled schools.

About a third of the schools that received School Improvement Grants improved, a third of the schools performed about the same, and a third got worse, according to preliminary research released in 2013.

‘Test and punish’ is a state of mind

Test-and-Punish Accountability is a State of Mind, not the State of Reality, argues Anne Hyslop , a New America Foundation policy analyst.

Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and AFT President Randi Weingarten want to move from “test-and-punish” accountability to a system built on “support-and-improve.”

President Clinton already tried that, Hyslop writes. “Support-and-improve”  became “do-nothing.”

Even when states and district do something to improve schools, results are meager.

After billions invested in retooled School Improvement Grants since 2010, with more resources and more intensive strategies, many under-performing schools have seen no improvements, and a third declines, under the program. Meanwhile, the research on NCLB-style accountability—with consequences—has found positive effects on student achievement, especially for low-performing students and in math.

Furthermore, the “punish” part of “test-and-punish” has vanished, Hyslop writes. “Thanks to the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers, there don’t have to be stakes, for anyone, on upcoming state tests. None.”

The accountability moratorium will last till 2017 — or longer.

Most reformers believes states should try new “support-and-improve” approaches “in tandem with meaningful accountability systems,” not as an alternative, she writes.

What is incompatible with the support-and-improve mindset is the choices of some elected officials, school administrators, and educators. If drill-and-kill, or weeks of rote test prep, or a testing week “pep rally” is the best you can come up with in response to a system of accountability, then something went terribly wrong, and it isn’t the test.

Transform the response to accountability, Hyslop argues. The test-and-punish culture is a very bad choice. “There are alternatives that don’t sacrifice high-quality, rich instruction at the altar of test-based accountability.”

$6 billion buys inSIGnificant gains

School Improvement Grants were supposed to produce “dramatic” improvements in our most troubled schools, writes Andy Smarick. Arne Duncan “transformation not tinkering.”  After two years and $6 billion — several million dollars per low-performing school —  SIG is “the greatest failure in the U.S. Department of Education’s 30-plus year history.”

A third of SIG schools got worse. The “increased proficiency” touted by the Education Department represents the same modest gains showed by “all other U.S. schools that didn’t get these huge cash infusions.”

SIG: Big bucks, small gains

Most low-performing schools in the School Improvement Grant program are showing signs of progress, reports the U.S. Education Department. But, big bucks have produced small gains. It’s an open question “whether an eye-popping infusion of federal cash—$3 billion in stimulus funding alone—and some serious federal strings had a dramatic impact on the nation’s lowest-performing schools,” reports Education Week.

While more than two-thirds of schools in the first cohort (which started in 2010-11) saw gains in reading and math after two years in the program, another third of the schools actually declined, despite the major federal investment, which included grants of up to $500,000 a year. And schools that entered the program in its second year (the 2011-12 school year) didn’t post gains in math and reading as impressive as those the  first cohort saw in their first year.

Even U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the progress “incremental.”

Turnaround dream turns to nightmare

When Jill Saia was hired to turn around a low-performing Baton Rouge elementary school, she was promised autonomy in decision-making and School Improvement Grant funding to pay for extra staff and a longer school day. Her turnaround dream became a nightmare, she writes on Teacher in a Strange Land.

Two months into the first school year, the new district administration dismantled the “dream team” that had planned the transformation of Delmont Elementary and moved two teachers and an aide to another school. Saia was cited for insubordination for insisting SIG entitled the school to extra staff.

Still, Delmont started to improve. While there was little progress on test scores in the first year, “we did change the culture and climate of the school, increase enrollment, and foster a high level of parental involvement,” Saia writes.

In the second year, she got funding for the extended day program.

We began to turn the corner – more children were reading, asking questions, and flourishing. Fewer behavior problems, more time on task. Children were communicating with each other, with teachers, with staff. They understood what the parameters were for being a student at Delmont, and they rose to our challenges. We planted our vegetable garden, had choir concerts, and participated in the Kennedy Center for the Arts program to integrate arts into the curriculum. We partnered with the local hospital’s health program to host the “Big Blue Bus” every week, which provided medical and mental health care to children and families. We were awarded a sizable grant from a local foundation to adopt a parenting program, and worked with a local university to design a new playground.

But, in November, the superintendent told her Delmont would close after two years of its three-year turnaround plan. Then the board decided to turn it into a K-2 school, then a pre-K center and finally a preK and K school. The final decision was announced in the middle of state testing week.

Students were assigned to a school three miles away, which has an F rating.

. . . because I stood up for my school and tried to keep it open, I was given another letter of insubordination. I was also rated “ineffective” at midyear because of my refusal to change my ratings of teachers to match their pre-identified quota in the value-added system. Their assumption was that if test scores were low, then the teachers must be ineffective.

. . . I was placed on an Intensive Assistance plan. Two months later, I turned in four binders full of data, observations, meeting notes, mentor reviews, etc. My mentor was a local award-winning principal who was part of the original “Dream School” team. Needless to say, she loved Delmont and what we were doing there. . . . After looking at all of my documentation, the director said that it “looked complete,” but then a week later told me that I was still ineffective and would have to wait for his final evaluation.

Saia began looking for a new job, but found “no public school district in this area would hire me because of my track record in a ‘failed’ school.”  After 29 ½ years in the state retirement system, she retired with less-than-full benefits to become dean of instruction at a public charter school about ½ mile from Delmont. Many former Delmont parents have enrolled their children.

Test scores from Delmont’s second turnaround year were “outstanding,” Saia adds. Delmont would no longer be a “failing” school — if it had remained open.

Turnaround … not so much

“Turnaround” schools didn’t turn very far, despite billions of dollars in School Improvement Grant (SIG) money, reports the U.S. Education Department. Two thirds of low-performing schools showed some improvement;  one third got even worse. What Ed Week calls “mixed results,” Andy Smarick labels “disappointing but completely predictable.”

Twenty-five percent of schools made “double-digit” gains in reading and 15 percent in math, which could mean a 10 percent gain from a very low base, Smarick points out.  “They are schools that went from really, really, really low-performing to really, really low-performing.”

“Single-digit” gains — as little as 1 percent — were reported by 40 percent of schools  in math and 49 percent in reading.

Yes, it’s only the first year, but the first year is the easiest, writes Smarick.

 Historically, schools subject to “turnaround” attempts are so low-performing that improvement efforts often see early gains. These schools are in such dire straits that initial quick-win efforts like instituting a school-wide curriculum or bringing a modicum of order to classrooms will bring about a bump in performance. The problem in the past has been sustaining and building on the gains made in year one. I can’t recall a study of previous turnarounds that showed so many schools falling farther behind after interventions.

Some SIG schools were improving before they received the grants, but then slid back, notes Ed Week.

 Twenty-six percent of schools in the program were on a trajectory to improve their math scores, but declined once they entered the SIG program, while 28 percent of schools where math scores had been slipping began to show improvement after getting the grant. In reading, 28 percent of schools that had been showing gains before SIG actually lost ground once they got the grant. A smaller percentage of schools, 25 percent, had been showing sluggish improvement in reading before the grant and began to improve once they got the funding.

So it looks like a wash — a very expensive wash.

Focus on elementary schools, where there’s a chance of success, suggests RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. Students are too far behind by middle school.

Unless the schools engage in intensive reading and math remediation with students, simply engaging in some curricula changes  (and offering some additional training to laggard teachers) will do nothing to help these kids onto the path to college and career success.

Districts rarely pick SIG’s strongest turnaround model, which calls for “shutting down dropout factories and failure mills, and then replacing them with traditional public and charter schools,” Biddle writes.

Obama touts turnarounds, but where’s the data?

School turnarounds are working claimed President Obama at the last two debates. But where’s the data? asks Alyson Klein on Ed Week‘s Politics K-12.

The Obama administration put $3 billion in stimulus funds into the School Improvement Grant program and required states to use one of four turnaround models. We don’t know if it’s working. “It seems pretty clear that the administration is sitting on the data until after the election,” writes Klein.

Tinkering, not transforming

Washington state’s share of $3 billion in federal School Improvement Grants isn’t funding significant change at turnaround schools, concludes Tinkering Toward Transformation by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Education.

. . . with some exceptions, districts and schools in Washington state are approaching the turnaround work in ways only marginally different from past school improvement efforts. Despite the hard work of administrators, principals, and especially teachers, the majority of schools studied show little evidence of the type of bold and transformative changes the SIGs were intended to produce.

Two of nine schools studied took a comprehensive approach to rethinking instruction, analyzing data and improving the school climate, while the rest adopted “a hodgepodge of intervention strategies.”


Time alone isn’t enough

Extending the school day without improving teaching won’t make much difference, concludes a new Education Sector report,  Off the Clock: What More Time Can (and Can’t) Do for School Turnarounds.

More than 90 percent of the schools receiving federal School Improvement Grants have chosen turnaround options that call for more class time. Some have added class time by shortening recess and lunch. Others have created after-school programs.

“New designs for extended time should be a part of the nation’s school improvement plans,” (author Elena) Silva concludes. “But policymakers and school leaders must recognize that successful schools use time not just to extend hours and days but to creatively improve how and by whom instruction is delivered.”

The limited research on extended learning time (ELT) shows only small effects on student achievement, the report concludes. “Schools that have succeeded with extended time have done so largely because they include time as part of a more comprehensive reform.” Just doing the same old thing for an extra 20 minutes a day isn’t going to help.